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The Most Suitable Conception of Social Class for the 21st Century

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Different social theories identify different kinds of social class conceptions, and debates between different theories never stopped since the mid 19th century, beginning with the theories of Karl Marx and Max Weber (both approaches will be further discussed in the essay). Every theory has its own unique way of defining “social class”, and a method to study how the society works to form and influence these classes. This essay is going to come up with a conclusion of whether Marx’s or Weber’s theory will be more suitable for the nowadays’ society condition by looking into the foundation of their analysis of social class and discussing the difference and common ground of the two theories. However, due to the different cultural and political factors, different countries nowadays (in the 21st century) have different social class conceptions, and it’s hard to find a “global best social class analysis”, which is suitable for all the countries in the world. So, this essay will narrow down to a specific country—China, and to find out a most suitable analysis for it to build its social classes.

What is “class”?

To find out which conception of social class is most suitable for a country, the term “class” should be more comprehensively defined. While “class” can be mainly classified into 3 different approaches: the individual-attributes approach, the opportunity-hoarding approach (Max Weber), and the domination and exploitation approach (Karl Marx) (Wright E.O., 2016, p.3), it’s important to know all the three approaches in detail to seek the difference and analyze them in a specific cultural and historic background.

The individual-attributes approach

To begin with, the most commonly acknowledged approach, the individual-attributes approach mainly studies how people’s different attributes (some are “ascribed”(characteristics are born with, such as race, gender etc.) and others are “achieved” (status attain over life course, such as education, occupation, marriage)) and material conditions characterize them (Wright E.O., 2016, p.3). “Class”, to some extent, is a way of looking into the connection and interaction between these 2 factors (Wright E.O., 2016, p.3, p.4). The author also states that “When these different attributes of individuals and material conditions of life broadly cluster together, the clusters are called “class””. So, all factors such as economic conditions, education, marriage or even location of birth can cast some impact on which class a people’s class. Inequality may occur in this kind of approach when some “ascribed” factors cast greater impact that cannot be changed or counteract by “achieved” ones.

The opportunity-hoarding approach

The second approach that the essay is going to cover is the opportunity-hoarding approach, mainly based on the theories of Max Weber, and in his theories, economic factors play a strong roll. While putting “class” in a “market” background, Weber tend to identify class situation with market situation (Breen, (2009), p 32.). The concept “social closure” in this theory, a process whereby a position (job) is saved specifically for someone and is closed down toward others, may be the main reason of inequalities (Wright E.O., 2016, p.6). While in the market, many positions acquire highly skilled workers (doctor, professor, etc.), and in most circumstances, the training process will be long and costly. This will give advantages to those who are privileged and close the opportunity toward the group of people with low income, and thus, cause inequality. Meanwhile, except the economic affects, religion, cultural style, or even accent, may be mechanisms of social closure and exclusion, which will further expand inequalities through the society (Wright E.O., 2016, p.7).

Exploitation and domination approach

The third theory the essay is going to cover is the exploitation and domination approach developed my Karl Marx. While in the exploitation and domination approach, the identification of class is rather easy with only 2 main classes who compete with each other—the bourgeoise and the proletarian. Therefore, as (Marx, 2018 [1848], p.26) states that “each step of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class.”, the proletarian is always the class that is subordinate in his perspective, and the bourgeoise being the dominant one. Inequality in the exploitation and domination approach occurs when the domination/exploitation group (bourgeoise) restrict access to positions and resources, and at the same time, controlling the laboring effort of the subordinate group (proletarian) (Wright E.O., 2016, p.9-10). Marx also believes that the subordinate group (proletarian) should stand up and struggle and to form of radical egalitarianism in a set of normative commitments, and thus, delete inequalities to seek for the historical destiny of capitalism— socialism (Wright, E.O. (2009), p.6).

What’s the difference between all these theories

All the 3 approaches have their own unique perspective and background of looking into the society. So, what’s the difference between them?

Firstly, the overall background of the 3 approaches are totally different. The individual-attribute approach is based on basic social factors, which can be directly observed. It’s a background of human nature and common sense. The opportunity-hoarding approach, on the other hand, developed the whole theory in a “market” background, and separate class mainly according to the rules in the market situation, the “social closure” is a good example. The exploitation and domination approach also has some economic perspective, but different from the opportunity-hoarding approach, the exploitation approach focus mainly on the class division between capitalists and workers (Wright E.O., 2016, p.12).

Also, the scope of application is also different. While the individual-approach is applicable in all kinds of societies (every person has different attributes), the other 2 approaches have their limits. Because of the “market” background, the opportunity- hoarding approach may not be applicable in socialism countries where most of the market shares are hold in the hand of the government (e.g. North Korea). The exploitation and domination perspective, however, call for struggle of the proletariat to fight the capitalists and seek for the pace to socialism, may not be applicable in most western countries whose societies built mainly of capitalism structures.

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It may be hard to separate the 3 approaches, because economic, cultural, and social factors may tangle with each other. Without knowing all these factors, it’s impossible for us to choose a suitable class classification system.

China’s structure and social background

After looking into the 3 approaches of “class” and their difference, it’s time to narrow the topic down. It will be essential to dig deeper into the social and historical background of China to find a most suitable approach for modern Chinese society.

China’s society was a mass without any order until The Chinese Revelation in the early 20th century, led by the Chinese Communist Party. It helped China out of the dilemma by giving chances to the lowest social class (mainly peasants) to move up and rebuilding the whole social structure of socialism with Chinese Characteristics (Li, 2017). After the revolution, the Chinese government tend to accelerate the process of industrialization by forming “socialist construction”, where all workers received rather low personal advantages, but instead, contributing to the socialist construction as a whole. With the goal to find equilibrium in a socialism society, the fact, however, go against the goal. Inequality occurred when Party and state officials widened their own privileges rather than sharing material sacrifices with the masses (Li, 2017). In the early and mid 20th century, China called for “continuing revolution under the dictator ship of the proletariat”, but in the 1970s and 80s, China called for “developing the material productive force” after realizing its disadvantages, and set goal of “catching up with the west” by clinging to the capitalist way of developing the society (Li, 2017). However, as a newly developed nation at that time, China was unable to compete in the world market. By finding the only “comparative advantage” as the cheap labor force, China privatized many enterprises and give more job opportunities to the migrant workers to develop the productivity of workers and is now the world’s leading platform of manufacturing exports (Li, 2017). However, it’s still improper to call China as a “capitalist” country, because many of the market share is still in the hold of government-owned companies. But with more opportunities to develop, China is now free to capitalist principles. So, the 21st century China, holds a unique way of looking into the society with both socialism and capitalism factors.

Choosing the best social class approach for the 21st century

With an overview of how Chinese society works and forms, it’s now time to choose a most suitable approach.

To begin with, China now has a mixed society with both capitalism and socialism factors, so the classification of proletarian and bourgeoisie may not be clear enough to identify. So, the exploitation and domination approach may be suitable for the Chinese society in the early 20th century, when Karl Marx’s theory and the socialism society was still in its embryonic stage, but not the society in the 21st century with many capitalism factors and less conception of exploitation and domination in it.

The “the opportunity-hoarding approach tend to fit in the modern Chinese society. China now is putting itself in the center of the world market, and the basic background of the opportunity hoarding approach of “market” tend to fit it pretty well. However, the inequality brought up by the “social closure” also exists and stays unsolved in the modern Chinese society. According to Minqi Li’s (2017) research in 2014, the urban workers (mainly consists of jobs which need long and costly training, such as engineer, professor, etc.) earns twice as much as rural workers (mainly consist of peasants). This statistic reinforces that the inequality has not been eliminated in the opportunity hoarding approach in China.

It’s the same thing for the individual-attribute approach, while many ascribed factors (e.g. someone who is born in a poor family and is not capable of education) cannot be eliminated, and thus, aggravate the inequalities in the society. However, the individual-attribute approach formed a rather clear classification system which will be easier to observe.

With the discussion above, we can find out that it will be really hard to find a most suitable approach for the specific situation of the 21st century China considering all the social, economic, and cultural factors. All these factors interact with each other and influence mutually. May be the best choice is to take beneficial points in each approach. For example, put more socialism factors in the opportunity-hoarding approach, by further developing capitalist market, the problem of “social closure” can be mitigated by having a sense of social equilibrium in mind. Also, considering more about the interaction between ascribed and achieved factors will be helpful to think of the society as a whole and will be easier to find out where the problem is. Equilibrium can never be fully eliminated, what we can do is to find a way to alleviate it.


To summarize, the essay finds a suitable way of defining class for the 21st century China by looking into the 3 main approaches of social class developed by different theorists (the individual-attribute approach, the opportunity hoarding approach (Max Weber), and the exploitation approach (Karl Marx)). By summarizing the difference of the 3 approaches from the factor of background and the scope of applicability, it’s easy to gain the basic conceptions that is needed to focus on a specific situation. Meanwhile, the essay narrowed down to a specific situation of modern-day China. By studying the historic, economic and social factors that may influence the determination of class, however, a confusing situation came up—not a single approach is perfectly suitable for the Chinese society nowadays. On the other hand, some perspectives in each approach may be suitable and advantageous. Although inequality cannot be fully eliminated, by combining the advantages (market background, socialism, and individual attributes) together, however, can mitigate the inequalities to the maximum extent, and thus, form a unique system that can be suitable for the modern Chinese society.


  1. Breen, R. (2009). ‘Foundations of a neo-Weberian class analysis.’ p. 31-50 in Approaches to Class Analysis, ed. Wright, E.O. Cambridge University Press.
  2. Li, M. (2017). China’s Changing Class Structure and National Income Distribution, 1952–2015, Journal of Labor and society, Volume 20, issue 1, p.61-84
  3. Marx, K (2018 [1848]). ‘Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels the Communist Manifesto with an introduction by Yanis Varoufakis’. p.1-34 in Bourgeois and Proletarians, ed. London.
  4. Wright, E.O. (2009), ‘Foundations of a neo-Marxist class analysis’. p. 4-30 in Approaches to Class Analysis, ed. Wright, E.O. Cambridge University Press.
  5. Wright, E.O. (2016). Understanding Class. Verso. Chapter 1, ‘From grand paradigm battles to pragmatist realism: Towards an integrated class analysis’ p. 1- 18. Also available as also available as ‘Understanding class: towards an integrated analytical approach.’ New Left Review 60, Nov-Dec 2009.

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